Friday, April 29, 2011

Unholy Moly

Spring in the Netherlands is heralded by many things: the appearances of "Do You Believe" [in Jesus, not UFOs] posters in preparation for Easter, pollen coating every flat surface it can find, coin-sized strawberries in the market, and white asparagus.

The asparagus in this country, like leeks and carrots, are enormous. So huge, in fact, that it took me until now to work up the courage to buy them, never mind clean and cook them. I'm not afraid of most vegetables, but up until I moved to the Netherlands, asparagus were green (and occasionally purplish), no thicker than a dime, and had a funny taste (that I now know comes from undercooking them). They were not these monstrous, white abominations. And what did you do with them? My mom (to whom I owe a lot, but not what cooking skills I have) had always snapped off the rough stem end, gave them a wash in water, and saut├Ęd them. But these looked like they would break my arms if I tried that.

Here's another way my boyfriend sucks at being Dutch: he had no inkling how to slaughter and gut (let's not pretend these wouldn't eat you alive if they had a chance) one of these creatures, either. His first attempt a few years ago ended with white worms swimming in a pot of boiling water. They were deemed unedible, even for him, and we consequently resigned ourselves to a spring without white asparagus and Hollandaise sauce. Since then, I've looked upon these things with a mix of suspicion and curiosity--how does a simple vegetable flummox Karel's cooking, and what does it taste like?

I'm happy to report that they taste delicious, thanks to a certain degree of hubris on my part, Masterchef for demonstrating the proper use of an asparagus peeler, and Julia Child for pointing out just how deep the asparagus peel really goes. You need to get rid of all of the tough, fibrous layer on the outside, or else the inside will cook but the outside will stay tough, so shave away until the plant becomes "juicy" to the touch.

The hubris comes from my electing to steam the asparagus, instead of following the countless generations of Dutch omas before Karel and boiling them. Actually, it wasn't so much hubris as the fact that these suckers wouldn't fit into the biggest pot we had, leaving me little choice but to steam them. With steaming, it doesn't matter if the food sticks out a little--a foil seal around the food will trap the steam and everything cooks evenly. After 10 minutes in the sauna, they were juicy, and so sweet I could have served them as a dessert.

Now, to attempt the Hollandaise sauce...


  1. the color is disturbing.....

  2. They are amazing (size and colour), although do you think that they have a deeper, richer, more complex flavour than regular asparagus (the Dutch say that they do)? I put a cheese sauce on them but still haven't found the magic combination - will be interested in yours. Peeling them is a great idea - I've never tried that and had exactly the problems with cooked inside but not out that you have.

  3. @ Sheila: Yeah, it does take getting some used to...

    @ Dave: I wouldn't say that they have a deeper flavor (although it is perfectly possible, and in fact, probable, that I have simply forgotten what normal thin green asparagus tastes like). I do think that steamed asparagus, in general, tastes much better than boiled asparagus, and the texture is much better preserved--no more limp noodles. As a side note, be prepared to go as deep as 1/8" into the asparagus when you peel it.

    I served them with a smoked-salmon-potato salad with dill-and-dragon mayonnaise on top. Karel had a food-gasm :-)

  4. Hey there, okay, I had a 'Jules cookery' night last night. I have to say that I felt very pretentious peeling my asparagus, and the peeler gets clogged every couple of stalks. I did the steaming in a basked over simmering water for about 15 minutes. You are right: the vegetable got rave reviews. Tender, moist, still a bit crisp even though cooked, good color. The sauce (a hollandaise alterative based on a sabayon base) wasn't quite up to the asparagus, but it really worked well. Thanks for the tip! (I came out with a lot of extra egg whites from the sauce, so experimented with egg-white omlette this morning - that works better than expected as well).

  5. You're welcome! I'm really glad to know that it worked!

    The pretentiousnes of asparagus peelers comes, I'm convinced, from their complete uselessness at peeling anything else, unlike, say, a cheese slicer (which I use to peel potatoes and carrots).

  6. Ah, see I didn't have an asparagus peeler, just a regular potato / carrot peeler. No I have to go to the Maastricht cooking store and do soem research...

  7. My favorite asparagus recipe:

    Steam asparagus (but keep them a little raw)

    Make mixture of sour cream (or soy based cooking stuff), chopped ham, nutmeg, salt, pepper.

    Put shortly steamed asparagus in cooking tray, cover with sour cream mixture and grated old cheese (or parmezan). Grill in oven until nicely colored.